Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 319
In Johannesburg, South Africa, Julie Summers meets Ibrahim ibn Musa, who is called Abdu, when her car breaks down and she sees him at the garage where he is a mechanic shop. Julie is a well-to-do white, South African woman in her 20s; she is climbing the ladder of an unnamed corporation. Initially fascinated by the man she sees as an exotic foreigner, for Abdu has emigrated from a northern African country (unnamed in the novel), Julie picks him up, anticipating a casual affair.
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Abdu is interested in staying in South Africa, with a more secure legal status, and in economic and social advancement. Encouraging a more serious relationship, he pressures Julie to meet her family. Julie has a lot of white liberal guilt about her over-privileged upbringing so she finds it difficult to see their lovely home and material advantages positively, as he does. Although both acknowledge deep differences, their emotional closeness grows.
A crisis comes when Abdu is deported and they must decide if they will try to stay together. Julie decides that she does value the relationship, and overcomes her reluctance to get married, which she sees as complicity in her country’s unjust legal system. Accepting that this legal status is necessary for them to stay together, she agrees to marry, and the couple goes to his hometown in the North African desert.
As Julie adjusts to her new life in her husband’s extended family, she finds many of the values she considered missing from a sterile suburban existence, and begins to study Quran. Along with her immersion in his family, she reestablishes some broken family ties of her own, contacting her mother who had moved to the United States with a new husband. Ibrahim is resolved to find other opportunities for improvement. Although their emotional commitment strengthens, he decides to emigrate once more, while she will remain and teach English in his community.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490
Julie Summers picks up a mechanic, who uses the name Abdu while working illegally in South Africa. Although she initiates the relationship, he, too, may be implicated in the pickup. In Julie, Abdu sees someone who has access to what he hopes to achieve: citizenship and a position of worth in a meaningful society.
Ironically, the characters’ contrasting values, needs, and desires sometimes become clear to the reader before they are evident to Abdu and Julie. Abdu insists Julie introduce him to her family; Julie sees no reason for this, as she has separated herself from her divorced parents and their privileged lifestyles. During the visit to her father, Julie is embarrassed by the lavish house and hospitality, but Abdu respects the success of her father and his friends. A reversal happens weeks later, after Abdu has been deported and Julie travels with him to his country. Julie is surprised that Abdu insists upon their marriage before he brings her to his family home; she has no respect for a marriage certificate issued by a government deporting him. Abdu is embarrassed by his dirty, impoverished North African village, but Julie becomes entranced living with his large, extended family on the edge of a desert that she, but not Abdu, sees as spiritual.
Several times the narrator intrudes, addressing the readers directly. In the second and third paragraphs of the novel, the narrator makes clear that the novel mainly investigates Julie’s story. The novel imagines what might happen when a young, privileged South African woman, who is open to experience and wants to reject her privileges gained through a racist society, meets her opposite. The narrator more often gives Julie’s thoughts rather than Abdu’s; the narrator follows her much more often than him. Therefore, Julie’s love for Abdu is clear long before readers can be sure of Abdu’s feelings for her. Despite early suggestions that Julie’s love for Abdu might be met with his use of her—as a person who has access to wealth and power—late in the novel it becomes apparent that Abdu does love Julie and respects her freedom to choose and her independence. He believes his country has curtailed his life choices.
The method of narration is appropriate for the novel, although it may cause readers difficulty. It shifts from an omniscient voice to the characters’ thoughts and dialogue without clear markers. Readers must come to understand the characters in order to know when words signify thoughts or dialogue and to whom they belong. The ambiguity and uncertainty readers experience parallels the feelings the characters have as they continue their unexpected and difficult relationship. The novel ends with both characters holding true to their desires: Ibrahim ibn Musa (Abdu) flying to the United States to find a better life, and Julie staying in his village with the solace of family and the desert and her newfound ability to teach English.